Originally posted on November 2010, as part of our Southeast Asian adventure
We flew from Manila in the evening and we landed at 12:30 am. The flight took around 4 hours, but to be honest I don’t remember much – the moment I sat down I fell asleep. Ever since we came to Asia, I have found it difficult to have a full night’s sleep, so thankfully David let me doze off on the plane. Sometime in the middle of ,y sleep I felt cold no woke up. The look on David’s face confirmed that I was lucky to have slept through a horrific flight and, thankfully, we were just about to land.
In advance of our arrival to Vietnam, I had emailed the mini hotel we were staying in to advice that we would be a late arrival. To say they were efficient would be an understatement: not only did they confirm that it wouldn’t be a problem, but also they sent us advice on what type of transportation to get to the hotel, as well as what not to do, what to avoid, etc. I will be honest : they freaked me out a bit. I should have not been concerned at all.
Vietnam was the first country where we needed a visa, which we arranged online. On arrival the as no issue : we showed the acceptance letter and we paid the $25.00 and we were in. They also placed an awesome sticker in our passport (the visa).
Saigon is one of those big cities in which you can have a lot of fun people watching or indeed looking at the traffic. If you are not careful you can spend hours, so if you get to go be mindful of time: there’s a lot to see!! We must have spent a couple of hours a day watching the world go by (beer or cafe sua da in hand of course!).
If there’s one thing that is particularly challenging is crossing the street. Traffic wise, mopeds are King here (petrol costs double per litre for cars and VAT on petrol is at 100%). Next in line are other 2 wheeled vehicles. No one stops. EVER. The rule is that you should start walking slowly and you continue doing so (keep checking either side). Do not stop or go backwards. Before you get to the other side, 20 different motorbikes will have evaded you without touching you.
Vietnam is a communist country, so it’s relatively easy to see massive murals with Ho Chi Minh’s face or with the symbols of the political ideology. They are mainly located in touristic areas, beside national monuments, the Palace of Reunification, etc.
We went to the palace the first day, not knowing exactly what to expect. We saw all the big meeting and reception rooms (curious fact: the one for foreign leaders was the smallest one). The highlight for me was actually the basement, where they had rooms that had been used during the wars against France, USA and China. They also showed us a video about the Vietnam War. I am not American and I appreciate that they may not have had so many opportunities to explain their side or the story, but I felt it was very heavy on propaganda, particularly on the point where it was suggested that the Vietnamese only had rocks to fight with… Maybe my bad for taking figurative speech very literally??
That same day we went to the war museum. The highlight did me was the second floor, fittingly called requiem, where they do a tribute to some of the famous photographers that went to cover the conflict. A lot of the pictures are rather raw and just seem to be from somewhere from another era… So hard to think that this was less than 50 years ago! The museum offered more than pictures but if you don’t mind I won’t write about those today: some of the items are truly gruesome and upsetting. So much so, that when we left the building we went to a pub to visit uncle LaRue (local beer) to relax and reflect.
The following day we did an excursion to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cu_Chi_Tunnels). I am writing famous, but the truth of the matter is that some people do not know what they were! It is simple: underground tunnels where the Vietcong lived and hid during the war. They were extremely long and some even reached more 200kms, reaching Cambodia’s border. The tunnels are far from Saigon, so we ended up having to purchase a tour for the “extortionate” price of $6.00
To say we were lucky on the day would be very unfair… Our guide was a Vietnamese ex- Marine!! How is that possible, I hear you ask? Read below…
Mr Bin was born in Vietnam; his dad was Filipino and his mam Vietnamese. When he was a teen, his dad left his mam and migrated to the USA. Mr Bin, who is 60 years of age today, stayed behind with his mother. When the political instability started, his dad took him to the US. There, Mr Bin found his dad had moved on, married and American and had become a father a couple of times again. Of course that hurt his pride and he decided to emancipate.
The easiest way at the time was to turn to the army. He started in New York City, living by governor’s island, which he loved as he could wake up with his girlfriend (the Statue of Liberty) by his side. Mr Bin was also full of stories from Harlem, Times Square (very seedy at the time), Brooklyn… His life is like a novel
Sadly, life took him back to Vietnam, this time to fight on behalf of America for the control of Vietnam. Mr Bin told us that he struggled with the concept and that from the beginning he decided he would not carry weapons – he would operate the radio system and translate messages. He happened to be stationed in a bare close to the cu chi tunnels and he said he was unaware of the existence of those until well after the war.
What’s truly appealing of Mr Bin is that he’s a true gentleman. Let’s face it, he’s had it tough in life. Try to imagine what it was to fight against your own people, to have to spend 5 years in a communist prison after the war and to have to study the “bible” of Ho Chi Minh… And despite all this, he was very kind in how he delivered his experience and made every effort possible to ensure that we “took with us the right perception of what happened, not what lonely planet or what the war museum in Saigon said” . He conveyed on a couple of occasions that he was wanted people to “know the truth”.
Mr Bin took us to the field where the tunnels still are today and took us to a room to watch a video. Once sat, we watched the whole 15 minutes video (propaganda overkill) and, once that was over, he came back and said “think what you will… I don’t believe that video”. Following that comment, and with a wood pointer, he brought a map where he showed us just how long the tunnels were (amazing) and he also showed us some of the traps they placed for the Americans which, to be fair, where quite ingenious. After that, we finally entered one of the tunnels.
The one we went into had been enlarged, they really used to be around 80cms X 80cmd. You can imagine how tight that is and how we had to go through it…. A week after doing it, my legs were still sore from the incredible walking squats!!! The Vietcong must have had the most incredible thighs.
On the way back to Ho Chi Minh city we continued talking to Mr Bin on the bus and asked him if he would come out for a couple of beers, which he did. He told us more about his time in the US, particularly about the time he spent in Philadelphia, Washington DC and the start of the war. His stories were fascinating and I couldn’t help but ask whether he had thought of writing a book. He said that he had had a lot of offers (seemingly especially from Israel) but that he only wanted to retire and gave a quiet life with his son who is a doctor. If I’m to be frank, I actually think that he probably signed an agreement with the government, because his demeanour and tone changed when you asked him about a book. I truly hope he gets to enjoy his retirement with his family.
In Saigon we also saw the cathedral (Notre Dame- yes, seriously). It was beautiful, but we could never go in as it seemed closed every time we walked by. To the right of it was the post office – amazingly beautiful. One of the last things we saw was city hall. It’s very Versailles style (toned down, of course), with a statue of “Uncle Ho” in front of it… Really, really cool.
Ho Chi Minh city or Saigon (or however you want to call it) may not be a naturally pretty city but it’s one of those that I loved and had a big impact on me. I would love to be able to come back. People are very kind and cheerful, food is beautiful (pho- yum!) and it’s extremely easy to lose the sense of time. In fact so much so that you could end up doing what we did: staying one more night.
Next step in this amazing country was Hoi An… But I will leave that to another post
Many thanks for reading